The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because spying by its very nature depends upon committing transgressions and lines are crossed when a head of state supports the death of a foreign national.
|Author and former CIA agent Jason Matthews. (Photo: Booktopia)|
"The world would know that the secret services of Russia were omniscient apex predators that could penetrate the governments of his enemies, discover their secrets, and exert their will over them... His active measures were creating lasting discord in the West, at minimal cost, and if he wanted to unseat an American politician, he had only to release an embarrassing, unencrypted email through WikiLeaks run by the languid dupe hiding in that exiguous Latin embassy in London. Partisan political hysteria now gripping American society would do the rest."
– Jason Matthews, The Kremlin's Candidate
The Kremlin's Candidate (Scribner, 2018) is the third and most compelling novel in Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow trilogy, concluding the series that began with Red Sparrow and continued with Palace of Treason. The final novel picks up with a prologue set in 2005, in which Audrey Rowland, an American naval officer and a scientist on a brief assignment to Moscow, is lured into a honey-trap for the purpose of blackmail by Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy. The former ballerina began her career as a trained seductress in Red Sparrow, in which her first major assignment was to seduce CIA spy, Nate Nash, the handler for a Soviet mole, and secure his identity. Instead, she was turned by Nash into becoming a CIA mole in the Kremlin and he becomes her handler and lover. Fortunately, she has the protective advantage of being a synesthete, able to judge the intentions of others by the colours she sees emanating from them.
After the opening chapter, the narrative of The Kremlin's Candidate is set in the present when both women have made dramatic strides in upward mobility. Rowland has become a potentially powerful Russian agent as she vies for a senior position in the administration that would give her greater access to both the President and to sensitive security secrets. That would include the identity of DIVA (Egorova's code name), who has climbed the hierarchy of the counterintelligence SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service, and she is slated to head it. The action ratchets up as CIA officers desperately attempt to identify MAGNIT, the Soviet agent in their midst, before that individual can do irreparable harm – and the Putin regime will stop at nothing to uncover the identity of an American agent in the Kremlin. Nash attempts a dangerous undercover mission to exfiltrate Egorova before that occurs, an undertaking that leads to a conclusion some readers might find unsatisfying, but given the perils of working in the shadows, should not be surprising.
That Egorova has ascended to the upper echelons of power is to a large extent the result of catching Vladimir Putin's attention, whose role increases in the series so that by The Kremlin's Candidate Matthews has made him almost a major character. The author pens a vividly chilling portrait of the Russian leader, one which draws comparisons with Stalin. Putin may be more photogenic and have a better grasp of public relations than his Communist predecessor, but the current czar's suspicious nature, paranoia, and control over subordinates through fear and financial and lifestyle inducements, are reminiscent of the Red Czar. (Putin's use of sex to control Egorova, a power play that is plausible in the context of the novel, probably has no basis in reality, at least as far as I know.) In the novel, Putin rages at his potentates for their failures whenever he believes that Russian security is compromised, but what really gnaws at him is when he feels his public image has taken a beating.
Above all Putin's capacity for sanctioning violence against opponents renders the connection with Stalin most apt. Matthews's etching of Putin is similar to that of historian Amy Knight, who in her book, Orders to Kill, argues that since the death of Stalin, his successors resorted to labour camps and psychiatric prisons to emasculate dissidents. But this former KGB officer has no scruples about exterminating opponents and critics of his regime. Matthews may depart from the reality investigated by Knight in his willingness to depict Putin approving the death of foreign nationals who work within rival security forces.
Matthews draws upon his extensive CIA experience, having worked over thirty years as a field agent as a handler of foreign assets. He provides meticulous details about the tradecraft, its attractions and its dangers, the psychology of recruiting potential assets, and he captures their dynamics admirably in this series. Some readers may be disturbed by the sexual violence and the unflinching torture scenes that are tropes in some of the James Bond films – but not the Ian Fleming novels on which they are based. I also wondered whether his arch villains, again like the Bond films, sometimes appear verging on caricature.
Apart from some irritating habits like the promiscuous use of Russian words and phrases that require translation, or the way he ends each chapter with a favorite menu from one of his characters, my major caveat about this highly readable and engrossing novel is that the author telegraphs his politics through his characters. I can understand that a CIA agent might resent Congressional oversight of their field work, that politicians may not understand that they are sometimes required to undertake actions that may not comport with the rule of law but are necessary. An author, however, can put some distance between his characters and himself; Matthews does not perform this feat. His portrayal of some members of the Washington crowd with their pomposity and unremitting hostility toward the intelligence community struck me as a caricatured representation of liberals by the far right. I can only imagine his unsympathetic treatment of Senators such as Kamala Harris, who asked difficult questions to Gina Haspel, Trump's nominee to become the CIA director, given her association with torture of detainees at black sites. Nonetheless, Matthews's assured writing about his knowledge of spying, his depictions of the tensions inherent in the American-Russian geopolitical rivalry, including his convincing portrait of Putin in this new Cold War, renders The Kremlin's Candidate a timely thriller.